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The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause
The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause
The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause
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The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause

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An updated edition of Germaine Greer's revolutionary discussion of menopause, which the New York Times Book Review called "a brilliant, gutsy, exhilarating, bruising, exasperating fury of a book."

A quarter of a century after the first publication of Germaine Greer's now canonical look at women's experience later in life, the renowned feminist and prolific author updates and expands her essential book, The Change.

Despite improvements over the last few years, discussions about menopause are still hampered by a huge variance in conventional wisdom about what happens, when it happens, when it can be said to be over, and how to deal with it. After decades, the same misinformation and ineffective methods are still being widely touted and proliferating at an alarming rate due to the rise of the Internet. In this updated edition of her groundbreaking book, Greer debunks stubborn myths and presents a vital new perspective on the emotional and physical changes--including up-to-date medical details--women face today when they go through what's known as "the change."

Greer also addresses cultural changes that surround female aging today, launching a clear and necessary protest against the notion that women should shrink into the background as they grow older. She argues that menopause marks the point in a woman's life when she should be able to stop apologizing and bask in the freedom and joy that come with her later years. Witty, wise, and timely, this new edition of The Change offers a crucial twenty-first-century guide to the change that every woman faces.
Release dateAug 14, 2018
The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause
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Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer is a writer, academic, and critic, and is widely regarded as one of the most significant feminist voices of our time. Her bestselling books include The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman. She lives in northwest Essex, England, and has taught Shakespeare at universities in Australia, Britain, and the United States.

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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    No stone is left unturned. Greer found something to say about the medicalization of menopause that was not in other books. What is considered state of the art in Britain, France, Australia, and the United States is somewhat different from country to country. Drugs and treatments available in one country are unavailable in others. The pet drug in each country is one produced by a drug company headquartered in that country. The United States, of course, comes out as champion in the medicalization of menopause. Greer did not hesitate to put forth her pet theories in the midst of statistics and reports of double-blind studies. She is very much present in her writing, and the book greatly benefits. Greer believes the second half of life is about becoming spiritual, and the second half of her book is her testimonial of her midlife passage, liberally sprinkled with testimonials from diaries and novels dating back to the 1700s. The reader experiences her passage, from the first chapters with her feminism in full view as she lambasts the medicalization of menopause to the final chapters when she describes her joy on being on the other side of fifty: "Before, I felt less on greater provocation; I lay in the arms of young men who loved me and felt less bliss than I do now. What I felt then was hope, fear, jealousy, desire, passion, a mixture of real pain, and real and fake pleasure, a mash of conflicting feelings, anything but this deep still joy. I needed my lovers too much to experience much joy in our travailed relationships. I was too much at their mercy to feel much in the way of tenderness; I can feel as much in a tiny compass now when I see a butterfly still damp and crinkled from the chrysalis taking a first flutter among the brambles." For those among us who approach our climacteric "alone," Greer makes clear that the relationship with the self can be the most joyous and satisfying of all relationships. (December 1994)

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The Change - Germaine Greer


For Ann and Julia





1 The Undescribed Experience

2 No Rite of Passage

3 The Lucky Ones

4 The Unlucky Ones

5 All Your Own Fault

6 The Unavoidable Consequences

7 Medical Ignorance

8 The Treatments – Allopathic

9 The Treatments – Traditional

10 The Treatments – Alternative

11 Misery

12 Grief

13 Sex and the Single Crone

14 The Aged Wife

15 The Hardy Perennials

16 The Old Witch

17 Serenity and Power

Works Cited


A Note on the Author


The author and publishers thank the following publishers and literary representatives for permission to quote copyright material.

Elizabeth Bishop: to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. and Chatto & Windus for the poem ‘One Art’ from Poems (Chatto & Windus, 2011). Reproduced by permission of The Random House Group Ltd. © 2011

Helene Deutsch: to W. W. Norton & Co. for extracts from Confrontations with Myself: An Epilogue (1973); to the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, for extracts from ‘The Menopause’ published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 65 (1984). Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd, © Nigel Nicolson, 1931

Emily Dickinson: Harvard University Press for poems from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Th omas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson

Rosemary Dobson: to Curtis Brown (Aust) for an extract from ‘Amy Caroline’ from Collected Poems, © Rosemary Dobson, 1991

Barbara Evans: to Pan Macmillan for extracts from Life Change: A Guide to the Menopause, Its Effects and Treatment, 4th edition (1988). Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear

Lillian Hellman: to Hachette Book Group for extracts from An Unfinished Woman (Penguin Books, 1973)

Elizabeth Jennings: to Pan Macmillan for the poem ‘Let Th ings Alone’ from Relationships; to David Higham Associates for the poems ‘Growing’ and ‘Accepted’ from Growing-Points

Doris Lessing: to Penguin Random House for extracts from The Summer Before the Dark (Jonathan Cape, 1973)

Patrick McGrady: to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ltd, for extracts from The Youth Doctors (Arthur Barker, 1979)

Ann Mankowitz: to Inner City Books, Toronto, for extracts from Change of Life: A Psychological Study of Dreams and the Menopause (1984)

Gabriel García Márquez: to Penguin Random House for extracts from Love in the Time of Cholera (1989)

Willa Muir: to Enitharmon Press for the poem ‘Where is my love, my Dear’ from Laconics, Jingles & Other Verses (1969)

Iris Murdoch: to Penguin Random House for extracts from Bruno’s Dream (Vintage, 1987)

Linda Pastan: to W. W. Norton and the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency for poems from The Five Stages of Grief (1978)

Margaret Powell: to David Higham Associates for extracts from The Treasure Upstairs (Peter Davies)

Vita Sackville- West: to Penguin Random House for extracts from All Passion Spent (L. & V. Woolf, 1931). Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd, © Nigel Nicolson, 1931

Stevie Smith: to James MacGibbon for extracts from The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith (Penguin Books, 1985)

While every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, this has not been successful in all cases; any omissions brought to our attention will of course be remedied in future editions.


The idea of eliminating menopause came not from women but from men who thought that the cessation of ovulation was a premature death, a tragedy. The years of the change are certainly difficult for some of us to traverse, so there have always been women who ask for help from male professionals during the climacteric. The help that was given was, at first, the only treatment doctors had for anything, namely bleeding and purging, accompanied by an array of ineffectual medications, some of which continued to be marketed at high prices for hundreds of years as Dr So-and-so’s ‘female pills’, setting a pattern for the exploitation of the ‘little health of ladies’ that persists to this day. Next the learned gentlemen tried to reactivate menstruation from another site, by opening issues of blood; from this they proceeded to hysterectomy and castration, in the hope of correcting the mental derangements that were thought to accompany the decline of the catamenia, as the menstrual losses were called. No sooner had electricity been discovered than they began thrusting electrified rods into the uterus; one of the first uses for X-rays was to bombard the ovary with them and so kill it. Marie Curie had not long discovered radium before radium rods were being inserted in the vagina.

There was always another school of thought that held that the climacteric was in truth less stressful than other periods in the travailed female life course. As long as childbirth was unavoidable and dangerous, this was clearly true. Partly because there was a disproportionate number of virgins over the age of fifty, climacteric problems became associated with old maids, adding greatly to the prejudice against them and against menopause. By the mid-nineteenth century, public awareness of a menopausal syndrome was greatly complicating the problems that the middle-aged woman had no option but to face. The irrational certainty that the womb was the real cause of the ageing woman’s anger or melancholy effectively obscured the inconvenient possibility that she had genuine grounds for feeling angry or sad. There was no shortage of women who obligingly internalised their own rage and produced a bewildering array of symptoms, many of which responded to hideous invasive procedures that can have had no genuine therapeutic function. Obstacles to negotiation of what is in fact a stressful stage in female life began to pile up, and menopausal distress accumulated around them.

In the guise of immense chivalrous sympathy for women destroyed by the tragedy of menopause, a group of male professionals permitted themselves to give full vent to an irrational fear of old women, which I have called, from the Latin anus, meaning old woman, anophobia. These are the men whose names continue to appear on hundreds of learned papers every year, elaborating the possibilities of eliminating menopause and keeping all women both appetising and responsive to male demand from puberty to the grave, driving the dreaded old woman off the face of the earth for ever.

There are positive aspects to being a frightening old woman. Though the old woman is both feared and reviled, she need not take the intolerance of others to heart, for women over fifty already form one of the largest groups in the population structure of the Western world. As long as they like themselves, they will not be an oppressed minority. In order to like themselves they must reject trivialisation by others of who and what they are. A grown woman should not have to masquerade as a girl in order to remain in the land of the living. Capitulation to pressure to do just that has resulted in a gallery of grotesques whose gallant refusals to age are the staple of our gossip magazines. The most spectacular of these was the late Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, 18th Duchess of Alba de Tormes. A series of phantasmagoric cosmetic operations had radically changed her appearance before, in October 2011, aged eighty-five and with a valve installed in her brain in an effort to slow down her mental decline, she made 61-year-old Alfonso Diez her third husband. The wedding was recorded for posterity in photographs of the Duchess dancing a barefoot flamenco at the wedding. Diez, who had signed a prenuptial agreement renouncing any claim to a share in her £2.2 billion fortune, was by her side when she died in November 2014.

There have always been women who ignored the eternal youth bandwagon and agreed to grow up, who negotiated the climacteric with a degree of independence and dignity and changed their lives to give their new adulthood space to function and flower. In a childish world this behaviour is seen as threatening. Nobody knows what to do with a woman who is not perpetually smiling and fawning. Calm, grave, quiet women drive anophobes to desperation. Women who refuse even to try to empower the penis are old bats and old bags, crones, mothers-in-law, castrating women and so forth. Though female culture cannot afford to give such attitudes even token respectability, we could see our way to exploit male panic if we dared. As women are the arbiters of birth, they are also the managers of death, within the womb and out of it. They have the spiritual resources to confront and deal with both, but men are terrified to leave such matters in their hands.

This is one book that seeks neither to trivialise nor to medicalise the menopause. The climacteric is a mysterious time about which sinister myths continue to cling. It is not illuminated by the proliferation of pronouncements defining it by the Masters in Menopause, those male professionals who with the willing assistance of the pharmaceutical multinationals have made a lucrative career out of an experience they will never undergo. It is a continuing aspect of the menopause industry that the women practitioners who allow themselves to become involved seldom corroborate either the evidence for massive derangement of female faculties during the climacteric or the miraculous results of the administration of extracts of mares’ urine.

Though there is no public rite of passage for the woman approaching the end of her reproductive years, there is evidence that women devise their own private ways of marking the irrevocability of the change.

The climacteric is a time of stock-taking, of spiritual as well as physical change, and it would be a pity to be unconscious of it. Certainly many women do not seek medical help for climacteric distress, but this has more to do with their attitude to doctors and their coping style than with the extent to which they experience symptoms. It is probable, however, that menopausal symptoms are becoming objectively more serious as a result of pre-menopausal medical intervention, especially sterilisation and hysterectomy, and of the pressure to keep young, fit and beautiful if you want to be loved, and of addiction and of environmental poisons. There is a proportion of women who suffer unbearable symptoms during the climacteric but the unluckiest ones are the ones who undergo destructive procedures, sometimes a series of destructive procedures, to eliminate disorders that time and patience would have dealt with unaided.

In most medical literature addressed to women there is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which women have brought their difficulties upon themselves. Arguments based upon the assumption that women are in control of their own lives and get the menopause they deserve simply absolve the practitioner of any obligation or responsibility. Many women only realise during the climacteric how little of what has happened to them in their lives has actually been in their interest. Women discovering for the first time that they are actually poor, dependent, insecure and lonely don’t need to be burdened with a weight of guilt as well. They do need, on the other hand, to take the control of their own lives that is now available by default. To be unwanted is also to be free.

The fifth climacteric is the time when a woman plans the rest of her life; if she has not the financial resources, the education or the energy, it is not too late to acquire them. If she approaches this challenge in apologetic mode, haunted by guilt or by fears of psychological inadequacy, she cannot make the decisions upon which her future happiness depends. She must reject any argument that holds that she has brought her present distress upon herself. On the other hand, if she persists in imagining that control of her life is exercised from outside herself, she will not achieve well-being. She will go down into darkness as a complaining, querulous, naughty, old girl.

Whatever her temporary discomforts, the menopausal woman has eventually to confront the problem of ageing. Again medical science can give her very little help. Ageing is the most idiosyncratic of all human processes and predictions cannot be made about any individual’s ageing career. Still, the wise woman can decide to age no faster than she absolutely must. This may involve her in drastic alterations of lifestyle and complete reordering of priorities. Some of the crutches she has been using will have to be kicked away. Bad habits will have to be given up. The role of menopause in her ageing is not easy to evaluate; some women produce significant amounts of oestrogen after cessation of ovulation, others do not. Replacement oestrogen may protect against the effects of ageing on the cardiovascular system and the skeleton, or it may not.

The enormous proliferation of menopause literature belies the utter lack of understanding of what is really going on. No one knows why ovulation ceases or even when it ceases, or what symptoms are caused by it and not by ageing, or even whether younger menopauses are more easily lived through than older ones. Nothing about menopause can be predicted, no risk factors can be isolated, no preventive measures suggested. Every year adds new symptoms to climacteric syndrome and every year takes some off. We have lost involutional melancholy and gained autogenic dysregulation. At all levels and in all therapies placebo response is high, sometimes dominant. All experimental results are compromised by the multiplicity of symptoms and by the self-limiting nature of the phenomenon.

Officially the medical establishment has one treatment for the climacteric, and that is hormone replacement therapy (HRT); in fact this is a multiplicity of regimes using a multiplicity of products in various combinations and strengths. No single individual can find her way around the whole gamut, and patients certainly will not be given the option. Selection of patients suitable for treatment is governed by the subjective impressions of the practitioner, and selection of the treatment regimen is a matter of serendipity. Investigations of counter-indications ignore important and common ailments such as varicose veins and give far too much attention to the risk of cancer. Opposing oestrogen with progestogens probably undoes its most important protective effect. The administration of oestrogen by the oral route makes no sense at all. Apart from these considerations, HRT is a valuable contribution to the pharmaceutical armamentarium, particularly for the multinationals who have patented the oestrogen preparations.

Traditionally women have not made a great fuss about menopause. When older women were in charge of the birthplace they witnessed frequent agony and death among the childbearing women, and had reason to congratulate themselves on having survived. They medicated themselves when necessary with simple preparations of plant material according to the season. There is no agreement in this vast pharmacopoeia because it is entirely reliant upon microclimates and cannot be duplicated in different circumstances. When male professionals took over medical practice they too developed nostrums of their own, but the principle of useless standardisation was early set. The least destructive doctors prescribed a cooling diet for their female patients, or adding a little wine to their regimen to keep their spirits up, and recommended a change of air, a long stay in one of the many spas where the middle-aged woman could not only take the waters but rest or walk, fast or diet, and recover from the multiplicity of childbed accidents she was likely to have undergone. Recourse to spas, which was part of traditional medical practice since the Iron Age, fades into hydrotherapy and alternative medicine, which offers an array of treatments for climacteric distress, most of which have the advantage of being relatively non-invasive and harmless.

No matter how good or effective the treatment of physical symptoms at the climacteric may be, there are some aspects of being a fifty-year-old woman that cannot be cured and must be endured. Sooner or later the middle-aged woman becomes aware of a change in the attitude of other people towards her. She can no longer trade on her appearance, something she has done unconsciously all her life. There is no defined role for her in modern society; before she can devise one for herself she experiences a period in free fall, which brings with it panic. Her physical symptoms may be such that she is always tired and cannot summon up the energy to haul herself through to the next phase. There are two aspects of her emotional condition at this time; one I have called misery, which has no useful function and should be avoided, and the other grief, which is wholesome, though painful, and must be recognised. The misery of the middle-aged woman is a grey and hopeless thing, born of having nothing to live for, of disappointment and resentment at having been gypped by consumer society, and surviving merely to be the butt of its unthinking scorn. Grief at the death of the womb is, in Iris Murdoch’s phrase, an ‘august and terrible pain’ unlike anything a woman can have experienced before, but she comes through it stronger, calmer, aware that death having brushed her with its wing has retreated to its accustomed place, and all will be well.

Most books about women and ageing devote a significant proportion of their pages to the discussion of sexual activity, regardless of whether the middle-aged reader has the prospect of sexual activity or not. Rather than reassuring the sexually inactive woman that she will become neither mad nor ill as a result of her failure to exercise her genitals, such books address themselves to the wife who is losing interest, encouraging her to use medications and any other resources she can find to fan her waning flame. Rather less is said about what she might do to stimulate her partner’s flagging interest, or what she might do to repel his/her advances if they were unwelcome. If the sexuality of older women were allowed to define itself, it is possible that we would discover that older women are not overwhelmed with desire for even older men or women. There may be something more to be said for the bar on the Piccola Marina where love came to Mrs Wentworth-Brewster than has hitherto been admitted. The secret lusts of old ladies are not the important point here, however; what is important is to debunk the reverence that hushes the voices of all other writers on this topic, who present sexual congress with one’s spouse as a duty from the altar to the grave, rather like cleaning one’s teeth and keeping one’s bowels open. It is a variant on this author’s often-quoted if misunderstood position that ‘no sex is better than bad sex’.

There are of course women in history who have inspired love in middle age and kept it till death intervened, without the aid of cosmetic surgery or oestrogen replacement. The stories of Diane de Poitiers and Madame de Maintenon, both of whom in middle age won and kept the love of a king of France who might have had as concubine any of the most beautiful women in the country, are encouraging, if only because they imply that there is more to a woman than two taut breasts and ankles that she can cross behind her head. Neither of these grandes dames would have looked good in shorts. The hardy perennials of our own time are less encouraging, because their charms depend upon expensive imitations of the girlish charm of much younger women. They must take up hours every day preparing the imitation body that is all their stock-in-trade. In 2008, when she was sixty-one, Cher told her audience at the Grammy awards, ‘In my job becoming old and becoming extinct are one and the same thing.’ At the premiere of her film Burlesque in 2010 she was seen to be wearing facelift tape just beneath her jawline. Times change; beautiful women are now unashamed to tell their fans that their nubile bosoms are fake but many would be ashamed, on the other hand, to admit that they were on HRT.

This book suggests other role models for the ageing woman, role models who are not simply glittering threads, some bones, some silastic and hanks of hand-knotted bought hair. If the world has dubbed you crone, you might as well be one. There is no point in growing old unless you can be a witch, and accumulate spiritual power in place of the political and economic power that has been denied you as a woman. Witches are descended from the sibyls and female saints; their lineage is noble and no woman need be ashamed to call herself a witch. This does not mean that she has to dress up and babble meaningless formulae in cellars and crypts. The wild white witches live outdoors and hobnob with creatures as wild as themselves.

The object of facing up squarely to the fact of the climacteric is to acquire serenity and power. If women on the youthful side of the climacteric could glimpse what this state of peaceful potency might be, the difficulty of the transition would be lessened. It is the nature of the case that life beyond the menopause is as invisible to the woman who has yet to struggle through the change, as the top of any mountain would be to someone in the valley below. Calm and poise do not simply happen to the post-menopausal woman; she has to fight for them. When the fight is over her altered state might look to a younger woman rather like exhaustion, when in reality it is anything but. The dependent woman is obliged to believe that only her turmoil of passion, fear, rage, expectancy and disappointment is living, and that when she is no longer tormented by it she will be as dead as a spent match. The difference between her clamorous feelings and the feelings of the silent, apparently withdrawn older woman is the difference between what someone tossing upon the surface can experience compared with someone who has plunged so deep that she has felt death in her throat. The older woman’s love is not love of herself, nor of herself mirrored in a lover’s eyes, nor is it corrupted by need. It is a feeling of tenderness so still and deep and warm that it gilds every grass blade and blesses every fly. It includes the ones who have a claim on it, and a great deal else besides. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


The Undescribed Experience

The experience of menopause is and will remain undescribed, because menopause is a non-event. It doesn’t happen on a day or in a place. It is not announced, or applauded or deplored. It is not the last menstruation, which is by definition pre-menopausal, not to mention that you can’t know that a menstruation is your last until months have passed. And that was before hormone replacement therapy, which may mean that a woman can go on having monthly bleeds as long as she chooses, maybe for the rest of her life (Rees & Barlow). In mid-2016 60-year-old Kris Jenner’s daughters were calling her ‘Miss Menopause’; viewers of Keeping up with the Kardashians might have seen tampons popping out of her purse. Commentators chattered away about her much younger boyfriend’s desire for children as if they were a realistic prospect. Though information about menopause abounds, nearly all of it is unverifiable, and most of it is wrong.

A few months after my fiftieth birthday, on a bright spring morning, my friend Julia and I were sitting in a pavement café in Beaubourg. Around the corner we could buy wonderful things to eat with the dew of the country still on them, wild mushrooms and bitter salads, and armfuls of cornflowers to look at while we ate them. Our coffee had been delicious and the croissants light and buttery.

‘I won’t live like that,’ said Julia. Her eyes were fixed on a little grey lady with a plastic shopping basket apologetically threading her way through the gaudy prostitutes and lounging boys on the pavement opposite. ‘I won’t live in some bedsit with a plate and a knife and a fork and creep out to the market each day for a slice of cheese and a baguette. I won’t become grey and invisible. I think what happened to my mother, those years of not knowing where or who she was. I’m not taking that road. I’ve thought about it. It won’t be an unconsidered decision. I don’t see the point of the next twenty, thirty years. To get so’s your own body makes you sick, no matter how hard you struggle to keep your looks, and keep fit. I can’t see the point of battling against it, when you know the outcome can only be defeat. It’s so unfair.’

Julia’s anxiety, with its telescoping of the next thirty years into a single grim tomorrow, is typical of the climacterium. We had both sailed through our forties with very little awareness of growing older. We had each buried a parent; she had shed a husband, but we had each remained at the centre of the life we had built. Suddenly something was slipping away so fast that we had not had time quite to register what it might be. All we knew was that it was irreplaceable. The way ahead seemed dark. Somewhere along the line optimism seemed to have perished. Neither of us could identify this feeling of apprehensive melancholy.

Julia nodded towards a table where two grey-haired men were being listened to by two sleek, expensive and very much younger women: ‘Those men are our age, probably older than we are. It’s bloody unfair. Those men can have their pick of women of any age. They can go on for years, and here we are, finished. They wouldn’t even look at us.’

The unkind sunlight showed every sag, every pucker, every bluish shadow, every mole, every freckle in our fifty-year-old faces. When we beckoned to the waiter he seemed not to see us, and when he had taken our order he seemed to forget it and we had been obliged to remind him.

‘Now what do I do?’ Julia asked. ‘Am I supposed to haunt the singles bars and try to pick up younger men? Am I supposed to descend lower and lower into squalor because I won’t live without love? Or am I supposed to just work, and come home and eat and watch telly and go to bed day after day, until I get too old to work? Am I supposed to become that?’ Her eyes followed the anonymous lady delicately picking her way home, the end of her baguette poking out of the plastic shopping basket. ‘Just thinking about it fills me with terror. I lie awake at night, worrying. What will become of me?’

I would have rattled off some names of other fifty-year-old women who had overcome the climacteric and been reborn into a different kind of life, but they were not names that sprang readily to mind. I needed role models for a woman learning to shift the focus of her attention away from her body ego towards her soul, but for the life of me then and there I couldn’t bring to mind a single one. The journey inwards towards wisdom and serenity is as long, if not longer, than the headlong rush of our social and sexual career, but there are no signposts to show the way. If there are leaders beckoning, most of us have no idea who they might be.

In fact Julia did find love. She married, worked until she retired, and in her late seventies lives in the midst of her family, at peace with herself and them.

Though the literature on menopause is vast, until recently very little of it had been written by women. When women have tried to bring menopause into the story, as Virginia Woolf did in earlier versions of Mrs Dalloway, references to menstruation and menopause were edited out. Until recently, nearly all of the millions of words written about menopause had been written by men for the eyes of other men; thousands of middle-aged women trooped meekly through the pages of hundreds of studies assessing their health, their well-being, their status, their needs, their opportunities, and their problems. Before 2000 we heard hardly one word in their own voices; now online blogs and chat rooms resound to a chorus of female protest and complaint, most of it ill-informed and misguided. Health professionals find no difficulty in ignoring all of it.

The following examples of online anguish were chosen at random in October 2016: ‘I have a cabinet full of supplements that don’t relieve my symptoms. Broke down and finally am taking a very low dose of an antidepressant. I can’t be sitting at work crying every day, I need to be able to function.’ Another goes like this: ‘The constant tearfulness is hard for me and then the sudden rage of wanting to run over people in the grocery store with my cart LOL … I just finished a 24 hour straight hot flash, which made me miserable, which in turn made anyone around me miserable!’ And yet another is almost incoherent:

When I look back, mine started with severe dizziness, dry eyes, Most of the time I just used to feel (as I used to put [it], I am not firing on all 4 cylinders – haha after about 6 months the anxiety kicked in and boy has it gotten worse, plus bouts of feeling like down a dark hole and I just want to get back to me, it’s almost as if I am on a different wave length, a lot of the symptoms seem to come in phases, I just can’t understand why this anxiety one is staying so long, I am at the edge at the moment x.

Some women are eager to share their newly discovered miracle cure: ‘I’ve started taking a magnesium tablet daily, I’m on hrt patches but breakthrough bleeding and terrible hot flashes night and day were just getting me down, I’ve been referred to a menopause clinic, whatever that is lol! But read about magnesium, seriously, what a difference, maybe a couple of night sweats and a couple of sweaty day moments, my hubby is so happy, I’ve actually been out with him today and not had any sweats at all, worth a try ladies, xx’. (The only way to find out if you need added magnesium is to try one of the commercial preparations and see if you feel better. Actual deficiency cannot be tested for but is very common.)

The contradictoriness of information about menopause is not the fault of the women whose responses are so unpredictable but stems from the lack of understanding by health professionals of the complexity of the endocrine processes ongoing in the human female. Blood tests, urine tests, saliva tests are of little use in determining what reproductive hormones are circulating in any particular case, and even when details of the picogram to millilitre level have been established, they can’t be shown to have any relation to the formation of symptoms. A survey of 3,275 women by Nuffield Health in October 2014 found that ‘just over a third (38 per cent) of women sought help from a GP. However, a quarter of those who visited a GP said the possibility of the symptoms being menopause related failed to come up.’

The names that cropped up most often in discussions of menopause in the Seventies and Eighties are still cropping up. They are the names of the men I call the Masters in Menopause (by analogy with masters in lunacy and masters in bankruptcy). The Grand Master in Menopause is Wulf H. Utian, who discovered menopause in 1967. His own account reveals how the discovery of a remedy inspired his search for a disease to treat with it: ‘In 1967 I happened to be in West Berlin and was invited to visit a major international pharmaceutical firm. A new female hormone was mentioned and thereby started my interest in the subject.’ (Utian, 1978, p. 9)

Utian then set up the first menopause clinic in the world, at Groote Schuur; its name was later changed to the Femininity Clinic and then, as the notion caught on that menopause could be ‘eliminated’, it was renamed the Mature Woman Clinic. In 1976 Utian moved on, from Cape Town to the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Ohio, and founded the International Menopause Society. In 1989 he set up the North American Menopause Society, with himself as director, a position he held until 2009. Utian, who served as the medical editor of Maturitas from 1983 to 1993, and Honorary Founding Editor of Menopause (1994–2010), and editor of Menopause Management between 1987 and 2009, still is the Grand Master in Menopause. His view of menopause is undeniably bleak; he sees it as the result of an evolutionary lag in the development of the endocrine system of the human female that did not keep pace with the increase in life expectancy. He believes menopause to be a potential endocrinopathy with potential destructive consequences involving, as well as womb and ovaries, bone, the cardiovascular system, brain, skin and sensory organs.

The multinational pharmaceutical company that had its head office in Berlin in 1967 was Schering AG, manufacturers and distributors of a formidable array of steroidal preparations for the dosing of women under the names Anovlar, Controvlar, Cycloprogynova, Eugynon, Gynovlar, Logynon, Microgynon, Minovlar, Neogest, Norgeston, Noristerat, Primolut N, Progynova and Proluton. The new hormone in 1967 was oestradiol valerate, marketed as Progynova and with a progestogen as Cycloprogynova. Oestradiol valerate is described variously as a ‘naturally occurring oestrogen’ ‘chemically and biologically identical to human oestradiol’ and a synthetic ester, specifically the 17-pentanoyl ester, of the natural oestrogen, 17β-estradiol. It is now marketed under many brand names, Schering’s patents having expired. In common with other plant-derived steroids, it is marketed these days as a ‘bio-identical’ hormone.

While Wulf Utian was preparing the ground for Schering, the multinational Akzo group was limbering up for its own onslaught on the replacement steroid market. In 1969 Akzo endowed the magniloquently titled International Health Foundation with headquarters in Geneva and 600,000 Swiss francs a year to spend on furthering ‘the health of mankind by identifying and contributing to the solution of human physical, mental and social problems through programmes of research and education and by providing information in medical and all related sciences’. The immediate beneficiary was their wholly owned subsidiary Organon International BV, manufacturers of ethinyloestradiol in tablet form and as implants, and of Ovestin vaginal cream. The International Health Foundation seems to have come into existence to publish three studies on menopause; its director-general was the Dutch Master in Menopause Pieter van Keep, MD, second only to Wulf Utian in generating learned articles, all based at first on the same Akzo-funded studies. In 2007 Akzo, by then AkzoNobel, sold Organon to Schering’s American subsidiary Schering Plough for 8 billion euros.

The ultimate aim of such developments was to get government funding to spread the gospel of HRT into every hovel on the planet, and, despite the catastrophe of the suspension of the Women’s Health Initiative and the Million Women Study, Big Pharma still hasn’t stopped trying. The arithmetic is simple. Post-menopausal health problems, notably osteoporosis, tie up expensive hospital facilities for hundreds of thousands of woman-hours a year and they will tie up hundreds of thousands more, as life expectancy improves around the globe. Educating women to accept HRT makes sense. Let it not be thought that I am implying that Schering and Organon, Utian and Van Keep were motivated by any but the highest motives.

The official view of the International Menopause Society is that menopause is a social construct, that illness is not the only response, that women need to know what a normal menopause is, whether their own is abnormal, and what doctors can do about alleviating their symptoms, that the approach to menopause is polarised between dismissing the menopausal woman and telling her to get on with it, and treating menopause itself as a deficiency disease, and finally that ‘new lifestyles’ that stress youth, fitness and active sexuality are leading to a new consciousness of the ageing body. Now that menopause has achieved a high profile, other professional bodies have held, are holding and will hold further conferences on menopause management. The pharmaceutical multinationals would be only too happy to finance international junkets all over the world in order to publicise their products so that they can be administered to women on a daily basis for billions of woman-years. Given the freebies and the junkets in the Seventies and Eighties, we were not surprised to find Third World professionals joining in the discussion and gleefully contemplating the scope for marketing steroids to a huge new population of post-menopausal peasant labourers. That was before 2001, before the Women’s Health Initiative, before the flight from HRT.

Menopause is a dream specialty for the mediocre medic. Dealing with it requires no surgical or diagnostic skill. It is not itself a life-threatening condition, so a patient’s death can always be blamed on something or somebody else. There is no scope for malpractice suits. Patients must return again and again for a battery of tests and check-ups, all of which earn money for the medic. In the Nineties ladies in the provinces held bring-and-buy sales to finance the setting up of menopause clinics – that is, outlets for the distribution of replacement hormones – working without reward, as women always have done, for the further enrichment of some of the richest institutions in the world. In the summer of 1988 the Amarant Trust was officially promulgated as a UK charity, its function to ‘usher in a new lease of life for mature women’, by increasing the pressure on doctors to prescribe and on women to accept HRT. In the Trust’s first newsletter (March 1988), which was a four-page advertisement that made misleading claims for the proven effects of HRT, women were told that they could pay a monthly levy to support the good work.

Women who work can now give to the Amarant Trust directly, through their pay packets. With your permission your employer can send us up to £10 a month from which he will deduct about £7 from your pay packet; the rest is made up by saving the tax. But if you wish to give less, ‘give as you earn’ is still a good way to support the Amarant Trust because the government gives us back the tax you would otherwise have paid.

A small announcement at the bottom of the back page imparted the interesting information that the costs of producing the newsletter had been defrayed by ‘an educational grant from [Swiss pharmaceutical company] Ciba-Geigy plc, and Novo Laboratories’. The merger of Ciba and Sandoz in 1996 would form Novartis, which would become the second-biggest pharmaceutical company in the world. As an embittered observer once remarked, women are the perfect guinea pigs; in the case of HRT they not only fed themselves and kept their cages clean, paid for the medications both through taxes and directly, administered the drugs themselves, and recruited further experimental subjects, they were also willing to subsidise the promotion of the products out of their own slender funds. The history of the medication of women in the climacterium is peopled with patients who have said, ‘Thank you, doctor, I feel so much better,’ whether they have been irradiated, electrocauterised, electroconvulsed, dosed with animal extracts, hysterectomised, dunked in cold water or given placebo.

In the ten years to 1978 Wulf Utian ‘authored’ or ‘co-authored’ twenty-six publications on the menopause. He had virtually commandeered the field of research into the usefulness of replacement hormones, which is characterised by poorly designed studies reflecting an unacceptable degree of bias. In 1984 clinical psychologist John Gerald Greene, who had been working at Dr David Hart’s Menopause Clinic at Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow – the first menopause clinic in Europe – attempted to ‘construct a cohesive sociopsychological model of the climacteric’ using the existing ‘substantial body of empiric research’. Though he paid tribute to Utian’s grasp of the biology of menopause, he was obliged to point out that there is no evidence of the deficiency disease that Utian and his cohorts assume to be the cause of climacteric distress, that no one knows how to disentangle the climacteric itself from ageing, and that in properly designed double-blind cross-over trials, the placebo effect is so great as to weaken or even to invalidate the claims made for the medication of choice. Although he made no direct attack on Utian, and a practitioner in the menopause industry would have been be ill-advised to do so, he did manage to imply that Utian’s enthusiasm for the ‘mental tonic’ effect of HRT was not justified by his own scientific research (Greene, 1984). The effect of Greene’s rigorous review of the literature on climacteric ‘syndrome’ is greatly to weaken our certainty that there is such a thing, let alone whether there is a cure for it.

One of the basic tenets of feminism is that women must define their own experience. The climacteric needs to be rescued from the fog of prejudice that surrounds it. The menopausal woman is the prisoner of a stereotype and will not be rescued from it until she has begun to tell her own story. Besides, anxiety about menopause can only complicate the event itself. Negative attitudes to menopause result in menopause being blamed for events and situations that have nothing to do with it. When retail guru Mary Portas was sixteen, and her father away on a business trip, her 52-year-old mother became ill; doctors said it was ‘the change’. The children struggled to get someone to believe that their mother was really ill, but to no avail. She slipped into a coma and died a week later. What had been dismissed as menopause was in fact meningitis.

Interestingly, women themselves seldom admit to having negative attitudes towards menopause. In 1980 a review of the available evidence reported that ‘women consider menopause as requiring little readjustment when compared with other life events … it appeared also that menopause is not viewed with trepidation by younger women, nor remembered as a stressful period of change by the elderly. In fact negative stereotypes of the menopause are less prevalent among women than among men. The climacteric is viewed by men as a major life change.’ (Asso, p.113)

Certainly the campaign to eliminate menopause has been initiated and is run by men. Since menopause became big business there has been a vast explosion of propaganda disseminating male views of menopause. The fact that male researchers remain attached to a view of menopause as catastrophe despite the necessary conclusions from their own research indicates an emotional loading that they themselves are unable to let go. The authors of the 1975 International Health Foundation survey make repeated references to ‘menopausal crisis’ and even conclude that ‘for many women the menopause is a period of disorientation, physical problems and psychological imbalance’ (IHF, 1975, p. 49) even though their own evidence proves that ageing is far more problematic. Such skewing of the argument represents something more than researcher bias.

Women who have graduated in a scientific discipline at a university have had to adapt in a very obvious way to the demands of a masculinist discipline, but even so they tend to resist the irrational certainties of the Masters in Menopause. Men see menopause as the cancellation of the only impor